Service to Our Ensembles AND Ourselves

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” — Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)

We certainly find a lot of joy in our work! A lot of other people do as well: according to the latest Chorus America Impact Study (2019), 54 million Americans sing in a choir (1 out of every 6 people). Involvement in choruses has also risen by over 11 million since 2009 (the last Impact Study). This was made possible in large part by the great work that our teachers, conductors, and singers have done and continue to do to spread the love of the choral art that ties our communities together.

In a word, so much of this is done by the very essence of our craft: service. We are servants on multiple levels, and we gain much joy from creating art with our colleagues and students and engaging in the humanity within music. The joy gained from this service carries no burdens or expectations and is immediate. However, this joy can certainly be squelched by overwork, stress, and anxiety. If we devote our time only to being excellent stewards for our singers and organizations, how do we balance that service with proper self-care?

For many, we shoulder too much by ourselves, and can become quite isolated quickly (even though a colleague might be next door!). It is not only OK to ask for help — we need to! The immense network of people striving together to spread the art of singing throughout the world not only makes it possible, but our lives better! I’m grateful for the many instances of my mentors and friends answering questions, listening to a rehearsal, offering thoughts on a program, giving a reassuring pat on the back, or a challenge to improve. We need to ensure that we look after each other so we can continue to grow the culture of choral singing in our schools and communities. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Share programs/repertoire — Repertoire is what drives our programs, feeds our singers, and is the product we present to our audiences. It is also growing at an exponential pace that is challenging to keep up with. Sometimes one small recommendation can absolutely change a concert program and/or ensemble for the better and open new doors that could very well change our lives and the lives of our singers. Great repertoire SHOULD be sung by MANY choirs — use others’ ideas, even if it is an entire section of a program, and give credit when appropriate! Furthermore, as we immerse ourselves in and promote works by underrepresented composers, we need to consistently share and perform this music! So share, ask, and then rinse and repeat!
  2. Attend conferences Meet new people and cherish the friends you have built trust in and discuss successes and challenges of our craft. If finances/life/location stand in your way, make your own coffee/breakfast conference with the teachers in your area.
  3. Collaborate We all recognize the countless hours of time it takes to mount collaborations with other conductors and choirs, but the gains are some of the most rewarding. They are some of the most memorable experiences we encounter, and our singers become more informed and involved as people while sharing a unifying encounter with others. So, ask around! Dream big. Find each other’s strengths and assign duties. Make it a recurring event!
  4. Say “no” when you need to Many times when we feel bogged down/overrun we say that our program “needs” me to do X. There certainly are countless endeavors that would/could/do benefit our programs. However, we might need to ask, “How much would my program suffer if this didn’t happen?” “How much would I (and/or my family and friends) really suffer if I did do it?” Sometimes we need to say “no” to some things so we can be healthy enough to say “yes” to others. This is probably one of the hardest considerations we have to make on a consistent basis. Talk it through with someone!
  5. Keep in regular contact with other colleagues Sometimes something as simple as a quick text message about the successes and/or challenges of the day can remind us that there are others experiencing the same things and just might want to talk (and laugh) as well!

So, let’s reach out and check on each other, ask for help, and create a culture of community so we are able feel the joy of our work and the support of our colleagues.